Iran threatened on Wednesday to speed up uranium enrichment if Europe fails to meet an ultimatum issued by Tehran two months ago.
The Europeans were given until Thursday, June 27 to help Iran escape from U.S. sanctions, or else Iran would begin exceeding the uranium stockpile limits set by former President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani said Iran will “forcefully take the second step of reducing its commitments” to the JCPOA on July 7, warning the Europeans not to confuse Tehran’s “patience” with “weakness.”
Iran began ramping up uranium production in May, but until now it has not openly violated the limits set by the JCPOA (although critics of the deal suspect it has been secretly violating it in a variety of ways all along).
The limit set for low-enriched uranium was 300 kilograms. Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization said it would exceed this production limit after the Thursday deadline expires and would begin enriching uranium more rapidly.
Breaking this limit does not by itself put Iran much closer to producing enough weapons-grade uranium for nuclear bombs, but nuclear experts worry about a “snowball effect” that would make it increasingly difficult for Iran to hit the brakes and pull back from increased production levels that would bring it to the edge of weapons production.
Both supporters and critics of the JCPOA disagree considerably about how much time the Iranians would need to “break out” to nuclear weapons, and the Iranians themselves have made a variety of claims on the subject, but all agree that a large stockpile of low-enriched uranium makes it easier to create high-enriched material quickly.
The “second stage” Shamkhani threatened to commence on July 7 would begin producing high-enriched uranium, further reducing the breakout period – almost certainly to a matter of months. This might also be the point at which the Europeans begin pulling back from their own commitments to the JCPOA, which they could see as effectively nullified by Iran’s actions, especially if Iran begins blocking U.N. inspectors from visiting its nuclear facilities.